The Too-Friendly Seal
Hawaiian monk seal still at the wharf
Not all of the wharf swimmers in this picture are kids. KP2, a Hawaiian monk seal at the lower right, enjoys an afternoon with friends after swimming back from Kalaupapa, where NOAA officials had taken him just two days earlier.
By Catherine Cluett
Life is good for KP2, a young male Hawaiian monk seal who calls Kaunakakai Wharf his home. Wherever people are, KP2 is sure to be found, whether it’s diving with laughing children or grabbing onto an outrigger for a ride. Some find his behavior annoying, but most are endeared by this bright-eyed, playful creature who prefers human company to hanging out with fellow seals.
“I’ve watched him hug the kids and the kids hug him back,” said one onlooker who frequents the wharf.
Abandoned by his mother on Kauai at 24 hours old, KP2, short for Kauai pup two, was found by NOAA biologists. He was raised in captivity for eight months before his release in Kalaupapa last November. A few months later, he appeared at the Kaunakakai
Wharf, and a team of biologists and volunteers worked to educate the public about keeping their distance from KP2.
The team also tried repeatedly to discourage the seal from making the area his home, but with no luck. Finally, on Friday, June 12, NOAA transported him back to Kalaupapa hoping he would socialize with other young seals and “stay wild.” However, in just two days, KP2 had made his way back to the wharf in time to swim with the neighborhood kids before sunset.
Now that he’s back, NOAA is asking people not to interact with the seal so he does not become dependant on humans and he can learn to live a seal’s life. The Hawaiian monk seal is an endangered species and it is against the law to approach or disturb a seal.
NOAA biologist David Schofield worries that when KP2 reaches sexual maturity, he will become not only larger and bolder, but may become aggressive. Because of this, he continues to ask Molokai residents to keep their distance.
Some are arguing that NOAA created the situation when it rescued the seal. They do not think it is fair they should have to stay out of the water to avoid the seal.
But many have also come to love the seal or appreciate the education he has afforded the children and community.
“These kids never would have been ever been able to know a monk seal otherwise,” said one monk seal volunteer.
“I think interacting with the seal is good for people,” said wharf resident Robert Wilt, known as Stretch. He suggests NOAA use KP2 as a “poster boy” – a mascot for the effort to protect Hawaiian monk seals.
Even NOAA representatives agree that KP2’s close interactions with people is not all negative. “KP2 has helped raise awareness about monk seals,” said Schofield.
On July 9, NOAA will make a decision about KP2’s future. Several options are on the table, according to Schofield, but they all involve removing KP2 from Molokai.
“As managers, NOAA has to remove the animal so he doesn’t become aggressive,” said Schofield.
Relocating KP2 to another Main Hawaiian Island, to a remote area in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, or to an aquarium are all being discussed.
Many Molokai residents say they hope KP2 will be moved to a sea-life park, where he can remain safe and monitored, but still interact with people.
“He is one of the toughest challenges in my career,” Schofield explained. “People dream of swimming with wild animals, but I can tell you it will end badly both for people and the seal.”